The Power of Silence in Learning
By Lorna Baldry
I am challenging myself to try something different and powerful in my teaching, training or facilitation. Some of the best learning experiences I’ve witnessed or participated in have included periods of quiet. Moments when a teacher, trainer or facilitator held their nerve and although tempted, didn’t fill a gap by jumping in with an answer or opinion.
As education professionals what we want to do is not just share knowledge or complete a syllabus. We want also to share skills, to help create resilient learners, with an understanding of techniques including problem solving. In this age of the portfolio career, where there is a need for all to be adaptable to varying workplaces, transferable skills are vital.
I’m a problem solver by nature, I have to try hard to stop myself from disempowering others by working to or for them rather than with them. But I really believe that anyone experiencing a problem is often best placed to solve it. So I need to keep working on my approach to silence in the learning process. A restorative approach helps. The use of a talking piece in circle practice enforces active listening. Often I’m tempted to jump to a response to a question, whether rhetorical or not, or to offer an opinion, but the lack of a talking piece in my hand gives me pause for thought. Often by the time the talking piece comes back around I realise what I had to say wasn’t that important or wasn’t appropriately timed or the group already worked things out for themselves.
When observing classes as a Manager within further education, I came to realise that I’m not alone in abhorring a vacuum. A majority of teachers I watched would often ask a question and not wait too long before answering it. It was a rare thing to see someone really wait. Not in an intimidating way. There was no tumbleweed blowing across the training room, there were no beads of sweat on the brow of a group of learners under pressure. There was, after the initial shock moment for someone accustomed to filling a silent space, room for reflection. A genuine shared consideration and pondering, with some non- verbal cues offering encouragement.
Space to think before sharing can build courage, can give time to order thoughts and words, can offer opportunities across the whole range of learning styles. We shouldn’t underestimate the impact that can have. Of course it takes some skill to become accustomed to an appropriate length of silence, to read a room, know your audience and make the right judgements accordingly. Some call this “wait time” https://improvingteaching.co.uk/2013/08/17/increasing-wait-time/
Studies have shown that anywhere between 3 and 7 seconds can be most effective. Try it next time you ask someone a question.
Something that I have experienced as life changing is the improved active listening that comes with silence. Often when there are concerns in education about disengagement or disruptive behaviour or a lack of progress and achievement, what really needs to happen is some good, genuine listening. When working in social engagement in FE that if a school, college or other training provider said they had these problems among their learners we had only to go directly to those learners and truly listen. They would tell us what was happening for them, they knew what they needed to do and what we could do to help. The power of listening rather than talking was transformative in the lives of many young people. For some it brought safety after fear, for others it brought understanding after misconceptions. In all cases it brought some development, some progression.
Of course, silence can be powerful in learning not just in the context of questioning. For many the best learning experiences are interactive, surrounded by peers in learning and supported by a subject expert. However, for some people, at some times, in some situations a much quieter approach overall can be necessary or desirable.
When I began to look at developing materials for eLearning in relation to subjects I had previously taught face to face for many years I read, asked and listened. I wanted to find out who may use distance learning and particularly eLearning and why. I found that sometimes the reason was geography, sometimes it was ill health, a young family, work commitments, finance, subject matter, but sometimes it was a preferred approach. Some people actually like to learn with no interaction at all. In a silent experience where they focus on their own voice and thoughts to better take in the subject matter, assimilating the skills in a separate environment.
I discovered something interesting about the different approaches to the support networks available to distance eLearners. We set up a series of forums and invited our learners to form virtual study groups, to buddy up to engage and enjoy some of the contact they might miss if they had no choice but to study at distance. The forums sat for weeks with no use, empty on our web pages. We asked learners we knew well to contribute something to try and get the ball rolling. We advertised the forums on the notice board and via social media. We even began posting ourselves, offering tips and asking questions. There were no replies and we were bewildered. We were even more confused when we added new subject matter, a blended learning marketing course and the use of the forum was incredible for that group. They used the method often and extensively, it became a really lovely, supportive and productive learning community. It couldn’t just be the fact there was some face to face group work involved, meaning the group got to meet, we knew this because the posting began before the first meeting. Eventually we asked some of the reluctant students to share with us why they didn’t choose to use a forum. The answer was probably obvious all along, although we’d failed to see it. The law students didn’t want to commit anything to writing and particularly on the Internet. In small part because they feared appearing foolish or saying the wrong thing, but mostly because they were concerned that something they said may be used against them at some time in the future. They were just thinking like lawyers.
When I began a new eLearning system with the same client base I had this in mind. I also knew by that time, from experience though, that a restorative approach is the best approach to learning. I knew to be as successful as possible in creating a learning community that was successful by all measures we would have to be strengths based, needs based and solutions focused. That meant breaking the silence. Once again it seems a mix of discussion and silence is the perfect blend. Brightlink www.brightlink.org.uk uses video conferencing for some face to face conversations that can’t be replaced. However some of our learners still guard their silence doggedly. And they are successful, maybe because of doing so.
So my challenge to myself both personally and professionally is to see the value in silence. To use the opportunities it provides and to be generous in offering those opportunities to others.